Scaling OKRs, Part 4: Writing OKRs at the Team Level

Level-set your goals, align with adjacent teams, and tell a good story

At this point in the series of scaling OKRs, we’ve talked about the importance of having strategy at the foundation of any OKR process, how to identify strategic OKRs from that strategy, and how and why you may want to scale OKRs by starting with one team first.

In today’s part of the series, we’re diving into what departments and business units need to keep in mind when they start translating strategic OKRs from the top to write OKRs for their teams.

At its root, the process of translating OKRs requires that any lower-level OKRs must support the higher objective set in the strategic OKRs. How do you ensure this?

Set your OKRs according to your level and sphere of influence

Level-setting your OKRs is critical to your success in using them. If you’re in leadership, strategic OKRs are yours—that’s the level you’re at in the company, and your sphere of influence encompasses the company’s strategic direction. If you’re in the sales, legal, or product departments, however, your sphere of influence is most certainly not the company’s strategic direction. It’s within sales, legal, or product, and even more specifically, within whatever elements of sales, legal, or product your team works on. When writing your OKRs, you need to write OKRs that encompass only those things.

For instance, let’s say your team is in charge of authentication for the company’s SaaS product—that’s your slice of the user journey. Your OKRs need to be about authentication.

Often, teams see the strategic OKRs and keep thinking big-picture as they write their own, setting OKRs for things like revenue. But you can’t sign up for goals you can’t directly influence—and it won’t do you or the company any good if you try to. Instead, set goals that reflect the slice of the work you can influence and hit those.

Tell a compelling story

When you set your team’s OKRs, you need to be able to tell a compelling story as to why and how those OKRs connect to the company’s broader strategy. You need to communicate a higher purpose—not just for your leaders to understand how your work ladders up, but also for your own understanding.

Let’s say you’re on the company’s data science team. You’ve set the following OKRs:

  • Objective: To democratize access to information and empower faster decision-making company-wide by the end of Q2.

    • Key Result 1: 60% of data queries are self-service

    • Key Result 2: 90% reduction in time spent on data queries that could have been self-served

    • Key Result 3: 80% increase in positive feedback on data-accessibility survey

Well done! You’ve set OKRs within your realm of influence. Now, how does it ladder up? What story can you tell to illustrate your goals’ connection to the company’s strategic goals?

Here’s what you might say: Our goal is to empower our product teams to make faster decisions on their own so that they can react more efficiently to continuously changing market conditions. In doing so, they should be able to adjust their planning and delivery more successfully in a way that enables greater efficiency for the target audience, which ultimately drives greater retention and revenue.

It’s thorough, connects all the dots, and provides a compelling explanation for higher-ups to understand your goal-setting decisions.

Mind your dependencies

Very few people work in a vacuum in an organization, which means very few people can set their OKRs and disregard everybody else’s. Once you’ve level-set your OKRs and figured out the story that makes sense of them, pause for a minute to look left and right.

You have teams working on either side of you in the user journey. There’s input from one team’s stage in the journey going into yours, and some kind of output going from your work into the next team’s. You don’t want to set goals that duplicate or counteract the work of other teams—nor do you want them setting goals that will duplicate or counteract yours. It’s part of your job with OKRs to be aware of what other teams are doing so that your work not only serves the higher purpose, but also makes sense within the context of the user journey.

When you don’t, you can hit some big walls…quickly.

When I worked at the Ladders years ago, my product team’s main goal was customer retention. The marketing team’s goal, however, was acquisition, and we hit a point where everything they did to drive acquisition (emails upon emails upon emails) killed retention. They also felt that things we were doing to drive retention impeded acquisition. It wasn’t until my boss pulled the marketing lead and me into a room and instructed us to “figure it out” that we actually started planning our work to be complementary and supportive of both goals.

This doesn’t always mean finding ways to better or more specifically differentiate your OKRs from those of other teams. In fact, sometimes, as Mary Poppendieke encourages, it can mean sharing sets of OKRs among multiple teams who have similar responsibilities. This creates a team of teams that is on the hook, as a unit, for these goals.

All in service of the strategy

Remember, the goal of setting departmental or team-specific goals is not to start off on your own journey to success. It’s to advance the strategic goals of the organization and help ensure everyone’s success in achieving them. Doing that requires awareness—of your sphere of influence, the work of the teams around you, and the story you tell about your goals.

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